They were returning from a four-day-long, 26-mile handcart trek organized by the Kamas Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which provided 236 teens between the ages of 14 and 18 the chance to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors -- while pushing a handcart.
And despite no iPhones and only a 5-gallon bucket allowed for their worldly, non-electronic possessions, one of the teenagers who returned said she is a different person, for the better, and not just because of the calluses.
"It was life-changing," said Desmyn Woolstenhulme, 16, a member of the Oakley 1st Ward. "I am so grateful for the pioneers because we wouldn't be here without them. We experienced a tiny bit of what they went through."
The purpose of a trek is to provide spiritual and historical opportunities so that youth can learn more about faith, teamwork, and sacrifice. It is a rite of passage for many members of the Church.
Commencing around 1847, handcarts were a means of helping Latter-day Saints congregate in their Zion, in the Salt Lake valley. These handcart pioneers faced many trials and hardships. participating in handcart treks, the youth begin to appreciate some of the hardships of the early Church pioneers, particularly those of the handcart companies. Not least important is the spiritual development many of the youth undergo during the trek as they realize that sacrifice can yield faith.
The Kamas Stake (which includes the communities of Peoa, Oakley, Marion, Kamas, Samak, Francis, and Woodland in the eastern and southern stretches of Summit County) only runs one every four years because of the cost and labor-intensive preparations to organize the trek. But in the afterglow of the return, adults who led the teens said it was a honor to guide a new generation of pious young people.
"If they ask us again [to participate in the trek], we'd be the first people there," said Vera Kunz of the Rhodes Valley Ward, who along with her husband Darcy served as "Grandpa" and "Grandma" on the trek. "It's the most wonderful experience."
"I don't think it is too strong a word to say that it was life-changing," said Lisa Sorensen, member of the Oakley 1st Ward, who served as the trail boss alongside her husband, Howard. It was her second trek, 16 years after her first, which she said was the first one the Kamas Stake embarked upon.
'I would go again in a heartbeat," said Lisa Flinders of Kamas, who has had five children go on treks organized by the Kamas Stake. She served as one of about 20 support members of the trek, not counting the 25 couples who served as "Ma's" and "Pa's." She recalled a recent conversation with her son, a missionary in Florida, who told her that like Woolstenhulme, his trek changed his life.
This year's journey took place on a marathon-length circle on the property of Deseret Land & Livestock, a large cattle ranch near Woodruff next to the Utah-Wyoming border. The land specifically offers a site where stake and wards can conduct three- or four-day youth pioneer treks. DLL supplies the groups with handcarts, water trailers, and porta-john trailers, according to its website.
The ranch, its website states, schedules two or three groups a week between June and August. There are a number of trek routes on the ranch to prevent groups from interfering with one another.
On the first day of the Kamas trek, a brief portion of pushing handcarts was preceded by the organization of families. About eight or nine teenagers are assigned to families, who are led by a Ma and a Pa. "I was anxious to see who was going to be in my family," said Woolstenhulme, because great care is taken to ensure that the youth don't know one another before the trek.
For many, a pivotal part of the trip happened on the second evening after a long day of pushing the handcarts. After playing pioneer games such as cowpie toss and tug of war, the campers had a hoedown with dancing. But halfway through the hoedown, a torrential rain storm blew in.
"It was fabulous," Flinders said. "It was awesome because it taught things we never could have taught, like teamwork."
Flinders and the other adults witnessed families banding together and helping one another protect themselves from the elements, in a baptism of fire that ended up bringing a closeness to the young men and women.
"It made them wake up to the reality," Kunz said. "The harder it is, the more humble they get."
The communion of families continued on the third day, where the men and boys were asked to climb to a hill in the distance. The girls were left to push the handcarts up the hill in what was called a "Women's Pull," simulating the way many pioneer families had lost their fathers during the journey and the mothers became the sole heads of their families.
Woolstenhulme said the pull was one of the most spiritual parts of the trek, with the girls saying a prayer beforehand, and then during the strenuous ascent.
It meant something to the boys, too. "It's very emotional," Flinders said. "It's very tender. Men and boys are taught to honor the women in their family."
By the time the fourth day arrived, the "inner beauty" that is planted inside the kids bloom into something life-affirming, said Kunz. "By the end of the trek, [family members] are best friends."
The young men and women who were "digging in their heels" at the beginning of the trek "crawled out of their teen-aged shells," said Sorensen. "You see unlikely friendships" out of teenagers who likely never would have met each other before, she added.
Although her feet were covered with blisters, Woolstenhulme was a little sad the experience was over. "Some girls were saying they could have done it for a few more weeks if there were showers," she said.